Press Release
Captive-reared Great Lakes piping plovers released at Cat Islands in Lower Green Bay for the first time
Researchers, partners and volunteers work together to protect endangered shorebird
Media Contacts

On Wednesday, July 17, we at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with our partners Audubon Great Lakes and partners at Detroit Zoo and University of Minnesota, released four federally endangered Great Lakes piping plover chicks at the Cat Island Restoration Site, in Lower Green Bay.

This is the first year we have released captive Great Lakes piping plovers outside of the state of Michigan – the population's stronghold – and the first time in the state of Wisconsin.

“Releasing-captive reared birds outside of the state of Michigan is a piping plover recovery milestone and I’m so honored to be a part of it. The entire drive with these birds riding shotgun was a surreal moment for me—precious cargo is no understatement,” said Jade Arneson, biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Minnesota Wisconsin Ecological Services Field Office. “It was also a bit of a homecoming for these birds, not just in the sense of returning to the wild but returning to Wisconsin.”

The 28-day-old chicks came from a nest that was abandoned at Long Island, Wisconsin, in the Apostle Islands. These four chicks are siblings but are still too young for researchers to know if they are male or female. The Bad River Tribe monitors and National Park Service were responsible for monitoring the abandoned chicks at Long Island and acted promptly to ensure the eggs could be rescued.

Each season piping plover monitors are trained to recognize the signs that a nest may be abandoned. They watch for situations where one or both parents go missing, the nest is washed out by a storm, or a member of the pair is involved in multiple pairs and nests. Once a decision is made to rescue the eggs, they are transported to the University of Michigan Biological Station near Pellston, Michigan where the Detroit Zoo manages a captive rearing facility for Great Lakes piping plovers.

“Thanks to monitoring efforts at Long Island, the eggs were salvaged and captive rearing in Michigan ensued,” added Arneson. “Seeing all four chicks fly out of the transport box with strength and determination was a rewarding moment. It represented the amount of effort and resources that go into making something like this possible. Moments like this fill my cup and are why I choose a career in conservation.”

Biologists have observed that captive-reared birds have a 75-100% return rate to the site they were released from, as compared to a 50-75% return rate to the site that wild chicks fledge from.

“We are very hopeful that these birds will return to the site and breed next year, contributing to the recovery of the Great Lakes population, not just because it will mean they have survived the winter and their migration, but that it will increase genetic diversity at the site and help boost Wisconsin’s population” said Tom Prestby, conservation manager for Audubon Great Lakes. “These four shorebirds, that look like little cotton balls when they are only a couple weeks younger, represent a conservation success story and play a huge role in aiding the recovery of this endangered species. If not for the efforts of this project, they would not be here and their eggs would have never hatched. It’s an honor to be part of coordinating the monitoring and protection of these birds.”

Wisconsin has two locations where piping plovers are nesting, one in Lower Green Bay and another on the Apostle Islands. Piping plovers from the Great Lakes population spend the winter on beaches in Florida, Georgia or South Carolina.

Audubon Great Lakes coordinates staff, partners and volunteers to monitor piping plovers at the Cat Island Restoration Site every day, including holidays, from April through August. The span includes arrival, territory forming, mating, egg-laying, nest tending and fledging, and departure.

“This year we have monitored four nests at Cat Island and a nest at Longtail Point a couple miles to the north, which is the first time they have nested in the lower Bay outside of Cat Island. This is a great sign that efforts at Cat Island are working and are beginning to radiate to the lower Bay in general as habitat allows,” added Prestby. “Last year, the piping plovers at Cat Island successfully fledged 11 wild chicks out of 12 chicks that hatched, which is an impressive 92% fledge rate and another sign of success!”

According to biologists with the Great Lakes Piping Plover Conservation Team, there were once anywhere from 500 to 800 pairs of piping plovers nesting in the Great Lakes region, but by 1990, that number had declined to about a dozen pairs, all in northern Michigan.

“This summer, there was a total of 80 unique pairs of Great Lakes piping plovers across the region and 85 nests. This is the most pairs in a season since the population was listed on the Endangered Species Act in 1984,” said Stephanie Schubel, the lead of the Great Lakes Piping Plover Field Crew and the data manager for the population.

The Cat Islands, which were a string of islands that the footprint of the newer restoration site lies on, eroded away in the mid-1970s due to severe storms and high-water damage. A few small islands and shoals remained, but much of the habitat for aquatic animals, shorebirds and 13 different species of colonial nesting birds was lost. The changes also left the remaining coastal wetlands in lower Green Bay unprotected from high-energy waves and storms. 

“Since the discovery of the first piping plover nest at the Cat Island Restoration Site in 2016, many agencies, organizations and individuals have worked together to establish lower Green Bay as an annual population of piping plovers, contributing to the big picture of bringing the species back from the brink of extinction,” added Prestby. “Protecting these plovers takes a lot of collaboration, and adaptive management and problem solving, all made possible by dedicated monitors and teamwork.”

This year is the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Endangered Species Act into law. Collaborative conservation like this proves that partnerships are essential to move species toward recovery. The Great Lakes population of piping plovers is a prime example of a species that is stable and slowly recovering thanks to the protections provided by the ESA.

The Piping Plover Conservation Partnership at Cat Island, Wisconsin, is made up of a variety of partners including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Audubon Great Lakes, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Department of Agriculture - Wildlife Services, University of Minnesota, University of Wisconsin – Green Bay, NEW Zoo and Detroit Zoo. All these partners come together to work on habitat restoration, research and species conservation at the site.

Monitoring and habitat restoration efforts to help protect this endangered species are thanks to funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) and USFWS Coastal Program. The implementation of the Cat Island Restoration Site where these birds reside is thanks to funding from the Fox River NRDA, EPA, WIDOT, USACE and Brown County.

Story Tags

Endangered and/or Threatened species